What is an Exorcism?
Imprimatur: Michael Augustine,
Archbishop of New York, 1893
An exorcism is the exercise of the power left by Christ to His Church to drive out evil spirits and to break their influence over men.
It is certain that the devil has power over men. True, Christ destroyed his dominion, so that he cannot any longer be a hindrance to their happiness. Yet He permits the devil to tempt men, as He Himself was tempted by him, in order to try men and to give them an opportunity to imitate His example, and to drive him away as Christ drove him away from Himself in the desert. But then God permits the evil spirit to afflict man in his body, either to punish him for his sins, or to try him. This we learn from the history of Job and of the possessed man in the gospel. Our Saviour says, “I saw Satan falling from heaven.” By this Our Saviour wished to say that Satan indeed had been hurled by the power of the Blessed Trinity from heaven into hell, yet not that he was totally deprived of his power: else He would not have given to His disciples the power to drive out devils. We read that St. Paul actually did expel evil spirits (Acts xix. 12), and he himself says: “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood: but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness” (Eph. v. 12). St. James the apostle says: “Resist the devil, and he will fly from you” (James iv. 7). St. Peter writes: “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist ye, strong in faith” (I. Pet. v. 9).
In these struggles the Church comes to our assistance, and in her exorcisms supplies us with a weapon against the devil. A Christian may command the devil, in the name of Jesus Christ, to desist from evil. He need but sign himself with the sign of the cross and sprinkle holy water.
From the Fathers
“The so-called demons or evil spirits seek nothing more than to decoy men from God, the Creator of all things, and from Christ, His only begotten Son. Such persons as are not capable of lifting themselves above the earth are held fast to earthly things, and to things made by the hands of men, by these evil spirits. Such as are competent of rising to the contemplation of heavenly things, if they are not strong in mind, and if they do not live pure and free from passion, these the evil spirits will seek to make godless” (St. Justin Martyr). “Many Christians in the whole world, as well as in your city, were relieved from evil spirits by exorcisms in the name of Jesus Christ Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, though they had failed to find relief from other helpers, potions, and diabolical conjurations. They are cured by having the devils that possess them driven out and rendered powerless ” (The Same). ” The demons which assail men destroy their ill-disposed souls by many false pretences, in order that they may not be able to regain their way to heaven. Sometimes, too, by the tempest of their malice, they agitate our bodies, but by the power of the word of God they are weakened, and the afflicted person is restored to health ” (Tatian). “It is known to most of you that the demons confess themselves whenever, by the power of the word and the fervor of prayer, they are driven out of their victims’ bodies. As soon as they are conjured in the name of the one living God, they tremble involuntarily, and in the consciousness of suffering they either spring forth from the bodies at once or they vanish gradually, according as the faith of the victim or the grace of the exorcist has power and effect ” (Minucius Felix). “Many Christians drive devils out of possessed persons by ordinary prayers and simple means, just as any simple person can” (Origen). “Will the Christian hold vigils before the temples of the idols that he has renounced, or participate in eating where it was so displeasing to the Apostle? And will he take under his protection at night those whom he has exorcised during the day?” (Tertullian.)
A Devil Asserts His Right.
The church historian Tertullian relates a remarkable case of a woman possessed by the devil, which we will repeat in his own words, and without any comment, leaving the reader to make the moral application. Tertullian says: “We have an instance of a woman who went to an improper public spectacle and came back possessed by a devil. When the unclean spirit was forced by exorcisms to explain how he dared to attack a believer, he answered, ‘I acted with authority and right, for I found her in a place that belongs to me.'”
The Confession of a Devil.
In the Life of St. Bernard we read: “A man brought his possessed wife to the saint. The devil continued to speak in a tone of mockery through the woman: ‘ This vegetarian and root-eater cannot drive me from my slut,’ as he termed the woman. He uttered also other derisive language in order to insult the man of God and degrade him before the people. But the saint knew the wily ways of the devil, and mocked the mocker. He ordered the evil spirit to bring the possessed woman into the church at Pavia, dedicated to Syrus, in order to give the glory of her restoration to that martyr. The saint said to the evil one, ‘Neither St. Syrus nor St. Bernard will expel you, but the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Then he began to pray, and besought God for help to overcome the devil. The evil spirit cried out, changing his tone and language: “Oh, how gladly would I flee from this slut! How gladly I would escape the pains I am suffering on account of these prayers! But I cannot! ‘When questioned why he could not get away, he replied, ‘Because it is not pleasing to the most high God.’ When St. Bernard inquired who this most high God might be, the spirit answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ St. Bernard continued: ‘Then you know the Lord Jesus? Where have you seen Him?’ The devil answered, ‘I have seen Him in His glory.’ ‘Then you were in glory?’ said the saint. ‘How did you come to leave it?’ The evil spirit said, ‘Many of us fell with Lucifer.’ These words he uttered in a doleful, lachrymose tone through the mouth of the woman, in the hearing of all who were present. ‘Would you be willing to return to that glory?’ inquired St. Bernard. To this question the devil replied, in an unusually loud tone of voice, ‘It is too late.’ These were his last words, and he would not answer any further questions. Then St. Bernard prayed once more, the evil spirit fled away, and the woman returned home perfectly restored.”
Obsession as a Punishment for Despising the Advice of a Bishop
Dancing-parties were always looked upon as leading to the commission of sin. About the year 600 the holy Bishop Eligius, like every other true pastor of souls, preached vehemently against this abuse. But his wise words were neglected, just as the advice of preachers and confessors today is often ignored by thoughtless Christians. One day, such a dancing festival being held near his own house, the holy man went out and besought the dancers to stop the scandal. But they laughed and went on with their amusement. Punishment soon came, for some thirty of their number became possessed of the devil, and acted so violently that they had to be put in irons. Their obsession had lasted a year when the holy bishop had them led into the church, and then, throwing himself on his knees before God, he begged that the afflicted sinners might be relieved. His prayers were heard, and the possessed persons went away entirely cured. Do not many persons in our day return from dancing-parties fully possessed by the devil, if not in body, at least in soul?